Strikers in Johannesburg, SA, April 25, 2018 protest austerity and oppression of workers
by Marty Goodman, originally published on Socialist Action, May 30, 2018
Worsening poverty and attacks on organized labor by South Africa’s neo-liberal African National Congress (ANC) government have ignited a wave of working-class militancy, resulting in a general strike on April 25. The militant action targeted a planned minimum wage of just 20 rand ($1.60) an hour, calling it “slave labor” wages. It also opposed anti-strike legislation that increases corporate and governmental control over unions and new taxes on working people.
The general strike was not total, but it was powerful. At least 10,000 marched in the streets nationwide, the largest assemblies being in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and business centers in some cities virtually shut down.
According to the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa, almost all of the country’s automotive plants were closed down, including BMW AG, Ford Motor Co., and Toyota Motor Corp. Thirty-four percent of companies surveyed by the National Employers Association of South Africa were affected, with 23% experiencing a total strike.
“It’s a war!” declared Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) to a cheering crowd of Johannesburg workers on April 25. “Today we are too big to march, so instead we’ll occupy Johannesburg!” he said to a roar of approval. SAFTU is demanding a 12,500 rand (about $1000) monthly minimum wage.
Lerato Mohatlane, a member of the Food and Allied Workers’ Union, said at a May Day rally that he gets paid R3500 a month, equal to the planned new minimum wage. He called the new minimum “nonsense.”
“I am trying to survive with R3500. I only manage to buy groceries costing R600 and I have to buy maize meal, salt, sugar, and everything. I give my mother R200 and money to my siblings as well. Like today, it is 1 May, I don’t have [money] at all, yet I [was paid] on 25 April,” he said.
Backing the measures and the main target of worker outrage was South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, the former mineworkers’ leader who is also president of the ANC. His personal wealth is at least an astounding $550 million, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Ramaphosa faces his own corruption problems, owing back taxes and engaging in crony capitalism. Irwin Jim, general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), the country’s largest trade union with over 360,000 members, called Ramaphosa “the Donald Trump of South Africa.” In a May 30 statement, Jim said,
“We reject the right-wing Thatcherist agenda of Cyril Ramaphosa. The president is using his so called “New Dawn” to oppress and to drive the exploitation of the working class. Since taking office the suffering of the working class has increased. The state has increased general taxes in the form of VAT; the electricity price has gone up and the cost of all basic goods has increased exponentially because of increases in the fuel price. The state has done everything possible to please business at the expense of the Black and African working class. The ANC government and the leadership of COSATU will go down in history as the butchers of the South African working class majority because they sold out the hard won gains of workers to the highest bidder.”
The strike also rejected an 18 rand minimum wage for agricultural workers in rural areas, where less than one-third of South Africans now live and where unemployment is highest. Union organizers there face many obstacles, not the least of which is the racism, sometimes violent, of white landowners.
The April 25 general strike coincided with an ongoing nationwide bus strike of 17,000 workers, which ended May 14 with two 9% raises in line with union demands. NUMSA backed the strike and joined picket lines.
The anti-worker measures promoted by Ramaphosa were set to pass on May 1 but were sent back to parliament for “review” after the bills provoked a labor backlash. On May 30, the bill passed in the National Assembly.
Key to the April 25 mobilizations was NUMSA, which was expelled from the ANC-Communist Party-aligned COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) in 2014 after NUMSA refused to back the ANC in the presidential election. NUMSA initiated what became the SAFTU union confederation in April 2017, which now has 30 affiliates and 800,000 members, second only to COSATU. COSATU did not support the April 25 action.
What apparently began at a small meeting called by a community-based group, according to one participant, long-time activist Trevor Ngame, was joined by NUMSA and SAFTU and other unions and leftist groups. However, the NUMSA role was key. Protest photos show a sea of red, the color of NUMSA T-shirts. Tapping into widespread working-class rage, NUMSA invited all workers, union and non-union, including the unemployed, to join the April 25 actions.
Neo-liberalism in South Africa
The ANC government overturned apartheid laws in 1994, which was actually desired by big capitalists at the time to free up labor and end international sanctions. However, since the presidency of the ANC’s Nelson Mandela, it has followed the economic strategy of the U.S.-dominated World Bank austerity program. ANC politics were from the outset reformist, not revolutionary. The GEAR program of 1996, during the early Mandela years, was overtly neo-liberal. Heavily influenced by the South African Communist Party (SACP), the ANC pursued the strategy of pursuing a so-called progressive “democratic” revolution, which meant overturning legal apartheid, but committing to capitalism and not working-class rule.
The old white capitalist 1% has been left in power while the Black majority remains mired in poverty. Unemployment hovers around one-third or more of the population. The ANC/COSATU/South African Communist Party tripartite alliance in power became feeding troughs for careerism, corruption, and pro-business sellouts.
Changes brewing in South African politics
A turning point in South African politics was the 2012 massacre of striking miners in Marikana. In 2012, during the strike in Marikana at the Lonmin platinum mine, Cyril Ramaposa, the company’s executive director, ordered a mop-up operation that led to the deaths of 34 peaceful strikers by ANC cops and company goons. Ramaphosa, despite his past as a union militant, wrote e-mails to Lonmin executives and the ANC minister of police, portraying strikers as “dastardly criminal(s),” and called for “concomitant action” against the unarmed workers. Ramaphosa was nicknamed “the butcher of Marikana.”
As a result of the massacre, fissures within the ANC emerged. Adding to the ANC crisis was the repulsive corruption of former South African President Jacob Zuma, who posed left at election time but rapidly established himself in 2009 as yet another ANC neo-liberal president. Zuma, who resigned in February of this year, faced an amazing 783 charges of corruption. Even Ramaphosa seemed a welcome relief from Zuma’s scandals for many (if naïve) South African voters.
On May Day, both COSATU and SAFTU held their main events in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape within a few blocks of each other. COSATU mobilized, having Ramaphosa scheduled to speak, but could fill only three-quarters of a 10,000-capacity stadium. Meanwhile, at the SAFTU rally, it was standing room only.
On May 1, General Secretary Irwin Jim released a NUMSA statement, which read in part, “As NUMSA, we pledge to leave no stone unturned in our struggle to forge the political weapon of the working class: the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, and to win political power for the working class.” That a mass organization like NUMSA would release a statement calling for building a “Socialist Revolutionary Party” is historic and challenges head-on the bankruptcy of reformism, a strategy that has proven itself a disaster in defending our class against exploitation, racism, sexism, war, poverty and environmental suicide.
The South African workers need our solidarity! Workers of the world unite!